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Why Starting Fleury Over Murray Works For Penguins

Why Starting Fleury Over Murray Works For Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins are turning to Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lighting after the veteran replaced rookie Matt Murray for the third period of a Game 4 loss that evened the best-of-seven series at two wins apiece.

While Fleury was out with a late-season concussion, Murray was a big part of the Penguins getting to the conference final, as he backstopped Pittsburgh past the New York Rangers and the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. The 21-year-old had a playoff save percentage of .944 through the first four games in the Second Round against the Capitals’ NHL-leading offence, but it has dipped to .892 since then and is just .889 through four games against the Lightning.

Beyond the numbers, there have been signs of Murray’s play slipping dating back to Game 5 against the Capitals. A lot of the focus was on his glove hand against Washington (see video below). It’s true Murray switched from a “handshake” glove position to more of a “fingers up” position late in the season to try and limit the exposure caused by a a tendency to dip his glove-side shoulder noticeably compared to his right side.

The bigger issue has been Murray starting to pull off shots, even on the blocker side, where he has been so good all season both closing down on shots and with movement in that direction.

Murray has been opening up with his movement and getting behind on lateral plays more often as the playoffs have gone on, especially over the past five games. Suddenly the great reads that Murray was being praised for early in the playoffs appear to be a little off, in part because he’s not recovering the space as efficiently or powerfully with his lateral movement.

This isn’t to suggest Murray has been exposed, or his future isn’t still bright.

The good tracking and early rotation into angle that allow Murray to move laterally and arrive set, especially on the blocker side, haven’t disappeared entirely. In fact, other than premature commitment to reverse-VH on the fourth goal in Game 4, it’s hard to blame Murray for the 4-0 deficit that led to Fleury getting his first game action since a March 31 concussion.

Still, whether it’s fatigue setting in or a bad habit creeping amid a long run that likely left him little time or energy for extra position-specific practices, it’s hard to not to notice Murray turning away from more shots and arriving late on more plays since late in the Washington series. That’s especially true against a Tampa Bay team adept at forcing pre-shot lateral movement from opposing goalies, and with Fleury arguably the Penguins regular season MVP (and arguably worthy of a Vezina Trophy nomination, according to the numbers) before the concussion, the move makes sense as long as he is healthy.

As for anyone still pointing to Fleury’s past playoff meltdowns as a reason not to, just stop.

Fleury is a totally different goaltender than the one that posted four-straight sub-.900 save percentages in the playoffs through 2013. He has since established more consistent and conservative positional anchors under new Penguins goaltending coach Mike Bales, eliminating most of the needlessly overaggressive play that led to those playoff struggles.

Marc-Andre Fleury has only faced seven shots since a concussion on March 31, but will start Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday. (InGoal Photo by Scott Slingsby)

Marc-Andre Fleury has only faced seven shots since a concussion on March 31, but will start Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday. (InGoal Photo by Scott Slingsby)

Fleury’s old problems were exacerbated by a tendency to chase the play even more when he didn’t feel confident, which often left him scrambling well out of position and prone to bad looking goals because of all the extra movement. Now he plays a more controlled, contained style within the edges of his crease, wandering just beyond those confines only on rush chances, and using his incredible foot speed to beat passes.

Bales has also got Fleury more comfortable moving into and off of his posts, a shortcoming that in past left him vulnerable to dead-angle goals and back shots from behind the goal line because of how often he got caught outside his posts. Fleury has since added reverse-VH to his post-integration options and now moves fluidly and powerfully in and out of it.

That’s not to say Fleury is perfect.

He doesn’t default to his knees and lock his arms at his sides as much now as he did in the past, which is important since his deeper positioning would leave the top corners even more exposed without his more patient, reactive approach now. The “book” on him is more stereotypical of all butterfly goalies, with the most exposure to the perimeter of the net, but he also tends to kick rebounds out with his pads more than steer them into neutral areas with his stick, and while he does have the recovery speed to get to those second shots, he can get flat with those pushes rather than rotating and gaining early angle back to his posts. It’s more prevalent to the blocker side and limits his ability to build vertical coverage above the pads.

Even at his best, Fleury may not be enough even at his best to overcome the loss of Pittsburgh defenseman Trevor Daley to a broken ankle in Game 4. But there have been enough signs of slippage in Murray’s game that giving Fleury a shot now makes sense for the Penguins.

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.